In our last blog series, we focused on different feedback methods to help you save time by planning and distributing the labor of grading. Since we have finished that blog series and held a IT lounge about feedback and assessment methods, we realized we had not addressed how to respond to a large amount of student work (large here meaning the size of a lecture course like biology, which is typically 50+). In this blog post, we will address the problems of assessing a large amount of student writing (which you may already know too well!) and offer tools and solutions for dealing with this workload.
Assessing Large Amounts of Student Work
According to the U.S. News and World Report on Education, Michigan State has approximately 38,786 undergraduates enrolled. When you have the opportunity to be a teaching assistant for the large lecture courses (approximately 23% of classes here have more than 50 students), it can feel like you are grading all of them!
Because you are also a graduate student, you have your own work to do: exams to pass, dissertation to write, and job materials to gather. But that’s beside the point–you want to be a helpful teacher while balancing all of your many responsibilities . So what do you do? How do you manage large amounts of student work?
Tools & Solutions
Distribute the labor with a calibrated peer review system like Eli Review or CPR (http://cpr.molsci.ucla.edu/Home.aspx). Earlier we talked about setting your students up to give feedback to each other, but this gets tricky in larger classroom because there are so many logistical steps that may leave you facing more challenge. However, there is a solution! Calibrated peer review systems work to take care of the logistical setup of peer review (How will students share their work? With whom will they share it? What kind of comments will they provide each other? When will all this happen?). Systems like Eli Review (a homegrown product from MSU) facilitate much of the process of letting your students give feedback to each other, as well as tell each other how helpful feedback was.
If you are a Michigan State affiliate, Eli is free when you use it for Michigan State courses. Currently, Eli is integrated with D2L, so you can activate your account through your course’s D2L site. This video shows you how. Then follow the getting started guide.
If you are outside MSU, systems like CPR (http://cpr.molsci.ucla.edu/Home.aspx) are available. If you use a course management system (CMS) like Canvas, they also have built in systems to facilitate this kind of review process.
When using Eli Review and systems like Eli, we have had success by following these five pedagogical principles and practices:
1) Design a writing assessment document, or rubric, with clear learning goals that you can scaffold.
Before students ever sit down to review one another, make sure you have made clear the writing practices a given assignment is designed to foster. We have found we are most successful as writing teachers when we make the learning goals or criteria for writing assignments as transparent and explicit as possible. This allows you and students to save time by staying on track and using a common measuring standard.
2) Introduce the concept of review early and model how students can review their colleagues’ work.
Review doesn’t need to wait on a completed draft. Instead, Eli is designed to help instructors review early, and review frequently. When we have taught writing, we have found that developing a culture of review early on in a course has helped our students’ overall learning because it front loads assignments and tasks with the learning goals in mind. However, we have also found that students frequently ask us what it is we are “looking for.” And indeed, it’s helpful to show students how to engage in a review process that leads towards your (or your program’s) course goals. Show students what kinds of feedback can be helpful toward working toward those outcomes and how to practice that kind of feedback so that students can begin to effectively respond to each other.
3) Start small and review more frequently.
Review doesn’t need to happen all at once. Instead, we have found it helpful to isolate learning goals in review activities, and to center reviews around a limited set of criteria, rather than around a holistic evaluation of writing quality. If a goal of your writing assignment, for example, is to make a convincing argument, then it may be helpful to have separate reviews that focus respectively on the quality of students’ claims and the quality of their evidence. Because you are breaking down larger assignments, students would be able to do small review assignments for each other quickly and efficiently in a low stakes way.
4) Use the rubric throughout the entire project, not just for final assessment.
There is plenty of research about the value of using rubrics as instructional tools. In the case of peer review, however, using the rubric as a common document for understanding the nature and purpose of a writing assignment can ensure that peer review provides a large quantity of feedback without sacrificing the quality or richness of that feedback.
5) Check in with your students to see how well it is working.
Despite all the positive benefits of the feedback we’re describing, it’s not going to work without strong pedagogical direction, and at times, intervention. Talk to your students — learn what feedback has been helpful, what hasn’t, and ask for suggestions about what can improve their experience of the process and help your feedback system become more effective.
We want to hear from you! What methods do you use for responding to large amounts of student work? What methods haven’t worked? Use the hashtag #ITeachMSU to share your answers with us on Twitter and Facebook.
Heather Noel Turner is a PhD student in Writing, Rhetoric, & American Cultures (WRAC) and an Inside Teaching Fellow at MSU. She is most passionate about computers and writing. Her research seeks to answer questions concerning visual rhetoric, digital pedagogy, community engagement and knowledge making (in both physical and digital environments).
Matt Gomes comes to Michigan State from Fresno, located in California’s Central Valley. He is an Inside Teaching Fellow with research interests include writing assessment, program assessment, and the rhetorics of institutional practice. Currently, he is interested in studying the material consequences of writing assessments for students, and how assessment mechanisms have shifted in response to a changing landscape of American postsecondary education.